Image: Former ‘Lost Boy’, Peter Madit
By Damian West (First published April 2015)
The so-called Lost Boys of Sudan – now grownup men with jobs, financial commitments, and children of their own – have a curious relationship to the term that has come to symbolise their former plight.
Coined as part of a special resettlement agreement between the UNHCR and the United States government in 2000, ‘Lost Boys’ refers to the 26,000 war orphans – mostly boys – who fled Sudan on foot; first to neighbouring Ethiopia in 1987 and then to Kenya when Ethiopia’s Marxist government was overthrown in 1991.
The now infamous Kakuma refugee camp was established in Kenya and home to most of the boys for over a decade.
Thousands died on the respective walks from starvation, dehydration, disease, attacks from wild animals, drowning, and assaults from enemy forces.
It was assumed by the UNHCR that any surviving relatives in Sudan would think of these boys as ‘lost’ or ‘missing persons’ – presumably dead or perhaps instead co-opted into slavery or fighting for the Sudanese ‘Red Army’ as child soldiers.
Although now nearly half a lifetime onwards, the label, ‘The Lost Boys’ continues to stick. They’ve been variously constructed as heroes, victims, success stories, and people still in search of something. The label has come to summarise their enduring collective struggle into a near biblical motif that everyone recognises. But it’s a story that has perhaps been told too often by others.
The ‘boys’ have their own stories to tell and it’s through reconstructing and recounting their stories that the label, ‘The Lost Boys’, remains for some a source of personal identification. Their own stories reflect back to them their undeniable resilience. They survived the unthinkable.
Books come up in every conversation I have. A couple showed me entire collections; autobiographical accounts of former Lost Boys who have since established themselves in Brisbane, Logan, Toowoomba, interstate and abroad.
But speaking with former Lost Boy Peter Madit sheds a different light on the book abundance. You feel the parentheses being placed around his story as he tells it – a certain distancing from terrible past events in order to remain future focused. The books are perhaps a means to integrating extremely traumatic childhood experiences while maintaining separation at the same time.
Peter was barely five when he made the 1000 mile journey from Sudan to Ethiopia, carried in parts on the shoulders of a dear uncle. The banding together of the boys came spontaneously; the sum of thousands of moments of individual chaos. “We couldn’t know where to go. They just walked anywhere. If you go to the ambush, that’s the end of your life.”
Layovers in villages along the way made the boys susceptible to attacks from hostile tribes in spite their numbers: “In South Sudan, certain tribes are warriors, cattle riders. They also loot young people. So they can be excited to see a group of young people walking by themselves…they cannot welcome anyone. They can welcome you in terms of looting your property or taking kids – taking advantage of them.”
Every day brought new hardship and loss of lives, including at one of the final hurdles – crossing the Gilo River in south-west Ethiopia: “…there were lots of boys who drowned in the river. It took a lot of lives.”
Life in Ethiopia’s Pinyudo refugee camp was also a dangerous and traumatic affair.
“I remember in Ethiopia there was not enough food. There was not enough shelter – people live under the trees. People survive eating leaves off trees. People don’t have enough water. You have to walk a long distance in search of water in the river. So life was not easy. Disease also. Many of the boys caught chicken pox. Also diarrhoea, malnutrition, and also some of them getting measles. Measles and chicken pox was common. And also people getting trauma. People went mad. Those days were very bad days…very sad days to remember.”
Mengistu was toppled from power in Ethiopia in 1991, unleashing new chaos that forced the boys to retrace their steps back into South Sudan and onwards to Kenya.
“The journey going to Ethiopia was very terrible, and coming back was another horrible thing. The rebels from the South Sudanese militias were attacking refugees. And the government of Sudan was also coming, attacking the border of Sudan and Ethiopia, knowing the refugees were coming back that way. The rebels fighting for Eritrea were also attacking refugees. There was no place to call home and settle in. Towards the rainy season, people don’t have shelter, no clothing. So that took lives of thousands. And others die of disease and hunger. It was a very traumatic journey.”
Their arrival in Kenya ushered in a new life in limbo. Peter speaks of chronic food shortages fuelling inter-tribal conflict; of attacks from locals from outside the camp; of illness and disease; and of the maddening effects of a timeless kind of time, where aspirations dwindle and traumas mount: “That life, it destroyed the determination of others. You can never think of tomorrow. You don’t even know what you will do at 12 o’clock, what you will do at 1 o’clock. Play football, play dominos. That’s the life. Nothing else.”
But Peter also speaks to the remarkable strength and determination of the boys to seize available opportunities – to make time mean something: “They were very clever boys, very determined to do something to help others. Some of them were even competing with Kenyans when they got scholarships to go to Kenyan schools under the Kenyan government. Some even become number one in their school.”
Peter was resettled in Brisbane in 2002, opening a new phase of personal adjustments: “It was really confusing environment. Taking the train was a new thing for me. You just can’t go and walk onto the train without a ticket. Also going to bus stop. You have to show a ticket and go in. So these were new things in my life. You can’t live in a house where you don’t pay rent. It’s a new thing for me. Where I live for years, where my parents live for years, you don’t pay rent to anyone. In Africa, only in cities like Nairobi or Kampala, Uganda, you pay rent to someone. But outside those cities you don’t pay anything. Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Is this another way of slavery?’ If I don’t pay rent now I’ll be on the street.”
Peter overcame these adjustments to open a productive life in Australia.
He quickly secured a paid work experience opportunity with Anglicare’s Brisbane headquarters where he sparked up a new friendship with now retired Anglican Priest, John Arnold.
In 2004, John helped Peter establish SALBAGO (the Sudanese Australian Lost Boys and Girls Organisation); set up to share mutual support within the newly arrived diaspora. Around 100 Lost Boys were active members at its peak.
Story-telling and documentation was another objective of SALBAGO, run off an oil rag in a Newmarket office space lent by a generous university professor.
The organisation was successful in its first application for Brisbane City Council grant funding to support a series of participatory story documenting workshops.
In 2007, SALBAGO coordinated a walk marking the 20th anniversary of the Lost Boys’ exit from Sudan. Starting at King George Square (Brisbane CBD) and finishing at the Mary MacKillop (‘Marymac’) community centre in Annerley, the walk sought to raise awareness around the Lost Boys and their story of survival.
The walk also initiated an annual day of observance amongst many South Sudanese church congregations scattered across greater Brisbane and the Darling Downs – the annual service gives thanks to the Lost Boys who survived and honours those who lost their lives.
In 2006, Peter was awarded a scholarship from the Australian Catholic University to study towards a Bachelor of Arts (majoring in Business) – studies that were soon after put on hold to focus on earning money needed to support the resettlement of an aunty who remained in a refugee camp.
He has successfully completed various diplomas in laboratory work and business administration over the past ten years, and is now in the final semester of studies towards a Bachelor of Business Administration at the University of Southern Queensland, Springfield campus. He has already been accepted into Swinburne University’s MBA program which he looks forward to commencing next year.
Earlier on, Peter established one of the first African retail outlets in Moorooka, initiating the African reinvention of the suburb’s commercial strip – now one of Brisbane’s most vibrant and unique cultural hubs.
On top of all this, Peter continues to work full time as a lab technician at a major Ipswich meat works, analysing produce for potential traces of contaminants. Some of his daily duties including preparing samples for testing, performing microbiological tests, and testing water samples from the meat work’s pondage system.
Now married with two young children, the 32 year-old is writing his own book – ‘The Journey Not Yet Finished’. Peter is undeniably proud of the resilience he shares with fellow former Lost Boys, and hopes his story will inspire his own children towards big ambitions.
Image: Autobiographies of former Lost Boys abound
On the world’s newest nation
JANUARY 2011: Celebrations erupted in South Sudan when 99% voted for succession in a plebiscite to determine the region’s future. Thousands of South Sudanese-born Australians also had their say, some travelling from far flung corners of the island continent to cast their vote at one of five polling stations including the Brisbane Convention Centre. Brisbane, Logan, Toowoomba and Townsville were all hosts to big parties and bigger dreams.
But high hopes have since soured.
Decades of war have left the new republic bereft of even the most fundamental infrastructure needed to prosper in a networked global economy.
A single bridge is all that spans the entire stretch of the majestic White Nile that cuts South Sudan in two. Corruption runs rife as roads, hospitals, schools and other infrastructure crumble. Much of the nation survives without clean water and electricity, and literacy rates are amongst the lowest in the world. Old ethnic tensions have reignited in the past two years with control of South Sudan’s highly lucrative oil deposits at stake. Perhaps most significant of all though, South Sudan remains a profoundly traumatised nation with next to no one personally unaffected by years of conflict.
It goes without saying then that good jobs are hard to find in Juba, the world’s youngest capital city.
What may surprise is the significant repatriation of South Sudanese-born Australians in search of meaningful employment – an accelerating trend since the signing of a peace agreement between warring factions in 2005. No doubt many are motivated by their passion for South Sudan and their wish to do what they can to help the fledgling republic attain the peace and prosperity it deserves. But Peter and others say the movement isn’t all about philanthropy.
They speak of highly educated former Lost Boys in Queensland and around Australia driving taxis and deboning chickens. People with Diplomas, Bachelor Degrees and Masters Degrees obtained locally, yet excluded from employment in their respective professions.
In a nation where ‘Skills Shortages’ are often flagged by business and government alike as a serious impediment to future economic prosperity, it seems absurd that South Sudanese-born Australians with degrees in accounting or economics should find Juba a more lucrative bet than the market in Brisbane or Melbourne.
One former Lost Boy, now a well-established professional in Brisbane, says this kind of exclusion is maintaining the same sense of statelessness the Lost Boys first encountered as children; a feeling of falling short of authentic citizenship. He says of his community that pity is not wanted or welcome; that equal opportunity is the key to real belonging; that his people are grateful to Australia; but that safety means little without a clear connection between effort and reward.
Peter and others express concern around the deeper longitudinal impacts when educational attainment fails to correlate with real jobs. Why should the next generation be motivated to work hard and set big goals when they see their parents’ efforts going unrewarded?
In Juba, on the other hand, many South Sudanese Australians are raking in big bucks.
When will the journey end?
Peter has yet to return to South Sudan, though many since have. After nearly 30 years, Peter says the reappearance of some former Lost Boys has compounded the trauma of surviving family members.
“It’s a new journey. It’s a new world. You’ve been here for thirty years without meeting your parents. You’re meeting a relative after not seeing them for 27 years. Their physical appearance will have disappeared. You cannot recognise who is Dad, who is Mum, who is a brother, so that thing is there; it’s happening. It’s a trauma to those who you are going to. For you, the person going to your parents, it’s not a trauma for you. It’s a new life for you. But for them it’s a trauma. They never see you. You look like someone is dead, and years later you come back. You’re not dead, you’re alive. How did it happen? Because of lack of communication.”
The processing of grief and loss is surely an integral part of the road to recovery. But there’s a lot more to it than that.
‘The Journey Not Yet Finished’ says it all. For Peter, the journey will end in South Sudan once peace and prosperity are attained. But there’s no ending in sight.
Peter loves South Sudan but fears for its future. He says a new generation of Lost Boys may be inevitable in an economic arrangement predicated on the profitability of perpetual warfare.
“We don’t know when the journey will end. Because wars still continue. That war will not finish. Sudan was a source of fighting for many years from 1956 until now. Just recently in 2005 the agreement from the south to the north has been done; still wars. And that is because of the economic crisis. People make war as part of their income, because they get something out of it. It’s become an economic war of politicians. What’s killing people now is the power of leadership. They don’t live in the war, they live outside of it. They live abroad.”
Peace and healing is a dream that at this moment in time seems sadly far away.
But in Australia, at least, the journey can end with a collective sense of belonging, and that will flow from equal opportunity in the job market – where former Lost Boys are rewarded fairly for their qualifications and efforts; no more, no less. That’s within all of our powers to attain.
But until such times, they’ll keep on walking. They’re some of the most resilient and resourceful people the world has known, and their feet are still restless.
(Originally published at http://www.mdaltd.org.au)